The Denver Broncos (13-3) enter this year's postseason as the AFC's No. 1 seed.
In more ways than one, this is a similar situation to last season—the Broncos entered last year's postseason 13-3 with the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But that season ended much earlier than expected—the Broncos lost in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens.
The Broncos hope when they begin their postseason run next weekend that 2014 won't be a repeat of 2013.
This season saw an even more prolific Bronco offense than last year, as the 2013 team fielded the most dominant scoring unit in NFL history, rewriting the single-season record books for points scored, first downs and touchdowns.
However, though the Broncos took a step forward on one unit of their squad, they took a significant step backwards on defense.
The 2012 defense ended the season ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game—the 2013 Broncos ended the season ranked 22nd in that category.
This is one of the question marks the Broncos have entering the postseason. Let's take a look at that and some others.
The defense may be the Broncos' biggest question mark entering this year's postseason.
For all of the praise and accolades the Broncos' offense accumulated throughout the 2013 regular season, the defense has often been cited as Denver's Achilles' heel.
Aside from its below-average ranking in points allowed per game (24.9 points), the defense ranked 27th in passing yards and 21st in touchdowns allowed on the season. Whereas some defensive units compensate for their lack of defense by forcing turnovers, Denver's in the middle of the pack (16th) when it comes to generating takeaways.
On the other hand, the Broncos allowed no more than 14 points against each of their last two opponents of the regular season. Then again, those last two opponents were the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders.
Mike Klis of The Denver Post comments on how the Broncos' defense has clicked at the right time due to personnel changes:
Rather than diminish the opponents, it's possible Denver's defense blossomed after an adjustment in personnel. Chris Harris is the outside cornerback while 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey moved inside to the nickel position. Lenon replaced Wesley Woodyard at middle linebacker. Sylvester Williams, Jeremy Mincey, Nate Irving, Omar Bolden and Michael Huff are defensive players who have contributed far more in recent games than earlier this season.
If the Broncos are to avoid a letdown similar to the one that they experienced last season, their defense has to complement Peyton Manning and the offense in the playoffs.
The best slot receiver in the NFL is fully healthy as the Broncos begin their postseason run next Sunday.
Of course, you're always concerned any time you get a concussion. Really, I feel good. I think we've taken a lot more action than what we would have in the past with this whole ordeal. I think we've taken enough time. It will be five weeks from the day I had any contact at all. I feel good, I feel fine, I'm ready to go.
The Broncos' slot man hasn't played since Week 14 when he suffered a concussion versus the Tennessee Titans.
In his absence, Denver's offense struggled versus the San Diego Chargers, but picked things right back up versus the Texans and Raiders—but the Broncos won't be facing teams the caliber of the Texans and Raiders.
Although Welker had statistically speaking the worst season of Denver's 'Big Four,' which includes Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas, Welker has perhaps the biggest impact of the group on the Broncos' offense, since his ability to occupy attention in middle of the field creates opportunities for Denver's other receivers.
The slot man's return to Denver's offense will be a huge boost. The question is, will he be just as effective as he was prior to his concussion by the time the Broncos take the field next weekend?
As mentioned earlier, the Broncos lost in one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history when they fell to the Ravens, 38-35, in double overtime of the divisional playoffs in 2013.
Denver entered the 2013 postseason as the odds-on favorite to advance to the Super Bowl from the AFC side—and the Broncos didn't even win a single postseason game.
There were many culprits for the loss. Peyton Manning turned the football over three times—including the interception that led to the game-winning field goal by the Ravens in overtime. Rahim Moore made one of the most boneheaded plays in NFL history on his pass defense of Jacoby Jones' game-tying touchdown catch toward the end of regulation.
The point is, the Broncos as a team lost that game.
The question now is, are the Broncos good enough as a team to avoid such a letdown for the second straight season?
There will be no player under greater pressure in the 2014 postseason than Peyton Manning.
Manning had the greatest regular season of any quarterback in NFL history—he broke single-season records for touchdowns (55) and yards (5,477 yards)—which just intensifies the amount of pressure and scrutiny he will face if the Broncos are eliminated early for the second straight season.
Peyton shares the record for most playoff losses by a quarterback in NFL history, as he is just 9-11 overall in his postseason career. He has eight one-and-done appearances in the playoffs.
Which means this. Regardless of whether it's due to another boneheaded play by a young defensive player, a missed kick by Matt Prater or the defense has another horrendous showing...if the Broncos lose, the blame will go toward one player: none other than the soon-to-be five-time NFL MVP.
Will that MVP respond by leading the Broncos to the Lombardi Trophy?
As is the case with the expectations Peyton Manning faces this postseason, the same remains true of the 2013 Denver Broncos.
It's Super Bowl or bust.
If the Broncos don't win the Super Bowl this season, the majority of blame will be foisted on one player, whether it's fair or not. Having said that, it will be considered a disappointment not just for Manning, but the entire Broncos squad.
There are no moral victories here. Even if the Broncos are to avoid last season's early postseason exit, if they fail to win the Super Bowl in February, this season will be considered a disappointment—all of the records and achievements attained by the 2013 squad will be forgotten.
It is Super Bowl or bust for this team.